Reflections on others’ assignments.

Several things struck me as I viewed the video responses. First, most of the projects were imagined to be bigger than they turned out to be. In short, the originating scholars eyes were bigger than their stomachs. That’s common amongst graduate students and newer faculty, but not always. The project on historical writing seemed realistic in its scope, especially with two creators.

I appreciated the attention to aesthetics and user interfaces most folks created for their projects. I struggle with how much attention to put into web design and how much to focus on other items. It’s less a question of UX versus pedagogy and more a question of how much time is available.

Finally, I engaged much more with the short videos than I did with the finished projects in module 8, even the well refined ones. There is an inherently safisfying element to a human explaining why they did what they did that isn’t reflected, for me, in texts or links.

Final project assignment.

For my final project, I will help the students find an article on the Lexis-Nexus database about Normandale Community College, compare that source with a book source from our college library, and blog about the two sources on a common course blog, paying attention to specific tags.

The assignment will run over 4 classes, with the first class session devoted defining a historical question to research and learning the database. The second session will focus on finding an article, reading the article, and finding a book related to the article in our library. The third class session will attend to how to write a blog post and the fourth session will involve editing the posts and ensuring proper tagging.

The malleable past.

### • How has the malleability of the past in the digital world complicated our work as history educators?
• How has that malleability made it easier to teach about and help our audience(s) engage with the past? ###

To respond to these questions, let me tell a short story. From the 1970s forward, some scholars on the left politically have argued that knowledge is contextual, not objective. Truth could only be discerned relative to other knowledge that produced that truth. I’m doing a great injustice to the theories of relativism, but there you are. In the 2000s, those on the political right warmed to the idea that if all truth was relative, then any argument could be held up as legitimate. Very quickly, many on the left realized the danger of this argument and retreated to a sort of quasi-empiricism, staking out more intellectual ground for evidence-based decision making.

Historians participated in this larger intellectual tussle, throwing in with the relativists before retreating a bit to land on the side of evidence-based stories. Alas, the horse has escaped the barn, and as a discipline, we have failed to convince our publics that not all stories about the past bear up to the evidence.

Compounding this problem of “my historical truth is as good as yours” is the nature of the digital world. To find truly unsupported information in the pre-digital era, you needed social connections that could facilitate the sharing of balderdash. In the digital era, spinning up a website is literally child’s play. Middle school students create hordes of websites for National History Day (and many are great!). History Day websites aside, we now have explanations about the past with little basis in evidence circulating like collateralized mortgage-backed securities in 2007.

So, historians helped deconstruct the notion that history is based on evidence, and the digital era lets many create their own malleable history. The cruel pièce de résistance of our malleable past is that both debates over truth and the velocity of non-evidence based thinking on the web fit within the frame of historical “facts” not historical thinking. So much ink and pixels are spent arguing over who is right about the past, that the idea of how we create a past has slunk to the back of our public historical conversations.

Despite the above issues, the digital era also offers possibilities to help us teach history in new ways. For example, we can help students dig into digital objects to find embedded metadata that helps frame the objects in different ways. As teachers, we can connect the motivations of migrants in the 19th century to the debates about immigration today. I can pull up my great grandmother’s entry log to Ellis Island and compare those documents with modern entry documents. Many of my students have entrance documents, yet I don’t need to go to Ellis Island to connect 1909 and 2017, I only need the web.

Perhaps most usefully, we can model good historical thinking and bad historical thinking, easily and with high impact. I’ve shown my students the picture of John McCain standing in front of Walter Reed Middle School during his 2008 Republic National Convention acceptance speech every semester and it wows every time. We can show how the inability to think critically can result in lost jobs and lost opportunities while we show the career expanding options in even basic digital history tools.

So, though our field of history suffers from significant structural problems, we also have the tools to combat some of the worse effects of these problems.

Reflection on public history in two National Historic Sites

Respond to the following questions in a blog post:
• How well, if at all, do Cosset and Chalana incorporate ideas we’ve discussed in our work on teaching historical thinking in their essay?
• Given what you’ve learned thus far, what advice would you give the National Park Service on how best to use their historic sites to teach to a more diverse audience?

Cosset and Chalana acknowledge the contested nature of history, especially when discussing the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. For example, the Cayuse Nation had been included when re-crafting park signage. That said, much of the discussion of the parks does not invite viewers to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence. Rather, the authors (and perhaps the park service) are attempting a “balanced” approach that speaks to the values of today and the past. This approach does not necessarily help visitors engage in historical thinking, as it does demonstrate that the park service and the authors are engaging is historical thinking.

For example the authors write:

Providing an even more balanced interpretation, an orientation film produced in 2012 presents the larger historical context and particulars regarding the Whitmans’ arrival and establishment of the mission through live-action reenactments. In it, Native actors depict Native Americans in re-created scenes, and both white and Native scholars contribute documentary-style commentary. The film goes to great lengths in presenting different opinions without struggling to fully resolve them.

Here, the park board tried to achieve balance in their presentation of historical facts, without actually presenting evidence in a way that might encourage visitors to draw their own conclusions. The phrase “without struggling to fully resolve them” points to Parks employees that dedicated to accurate and complex history. Nonetheless, there is no invitation to make history out of the park. Cosset and Chalana are trying to find the “right” way to tell a story, not necessarily how to help visitors make their own history.

Reflection on Wineburg: historical thinking over history.

Propmpt: “Given the current discussion about facts, real or “alternative”, how should we use what we know about historical thinking, public perceptions of the past, and what we can do with digital media, to promote a more accurate understanding of the past? Write a blog post that explores these questions.”

I applaud Wineburg for privileging historical thinking over historical facts. As I tell my students, arguing over what’s in a picture means you’ve already lost the argument because someone else created the frame. Framing an argument involves a complex set of historical thinking choices that include what sources to include, what theories of historical action will be mentioned and what temporal, geographic, and personnel limits are set. Once you are arguing over who the greatest president of the United States was, you’ve already yielded the field to others as the terms of the debate are set.

Framing, or providing historical context, is especially important given the instant access nature of information retrieval brought on by web technologies. Even the language of the web encourages us not to consider context. When you search a search engine gives you “results,” which as my iOS dictionary defines as “a consequence, effect, or outcome of something.” In put A and get a result B. As historians we often focus on how B is not an evidence-based historical fact, when we should be blowing up the A then B equation entirely to encourage students to ask more human and interesting questions.

For example, I have searched and found not a single year since 40 BCE in wikipedia to lack its own entry. Type in any year and you’ll get a page of what Wikipedia editors conclude happened in that year. Centuries and decades are sometimes linked on the right hand side. References for year entries are typically a single encyclopedia. We, as historians, should start by making these year pages full-to-the brim with references that pull the general public into a wider discussion about historical thinking. As soon as someone google “1492” and lands on Wikipedia, there should be dozens of references that provide context.

This approach largely cedes the ground to Wikipedia while attempting to mitigate the damage it does to our collective historical thinking. A more proactive approach would be to bridges the divides between critical thinking, information literacy, digital literacy, and scientific thinking. While these skills are separate, they all involved sorting credible information. For example, the same technique Wineburg used to debunk the Hitler museum could be used to debunk vaccine or climate change deniers. We cannot, as a discipline, expect our students to value historical thinking in isolation, and there are great partnerships to be made with other disciplines who struggle to teach students how to use digital media.